Serendipity by Lisa Rodrigues

Lisa Rodrigues

Lisa Rodrigues former Chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, now writer and mental health campaigner has written a blog for #EQW2016 and mental health week 2016. She writes about her own experiences and the intertwined relationship between mental health and diversity and inclusion.   

Serendipity is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as:

"The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way"

It felt like serendipity when this year, NHS Employers chose the same week to celebrate equality and diversity as the one already chosen as Mental Health Awareness Week. And then asked me to write this blog. Because I think the topics are closer relations than many realise.

Let me explain.

It troubles me when people get treated unfairly because of their race, religious beliefs, gender, sexuality, age, disability or anything else. But I also love that we live in a democracy that cares enough about equality, diversity and human rights to have legislation underpinned by principles of fairness so that we can challenge stigma and discrimination.

And challenge them we must. Despite commitments made at the highest levels across successive regimes, the top of the NHS remains predominantly male and almost entirely white. And that is despite a workforce that is 70% female and 20% BME, rising to 30% BME amongst nurses. This is why I am so proud to be an ambassador and a trustee of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal. And why, once Mary’s beautiful statue is unveiled in the garden of St Thomas’ Hospital, directly opposite the Houses of Parliament, I am volunteering with a new charity, the Mary Seacole Trust. We will call upon Mary’s legacy to inspire young people, who might otherwise feel disheartened, so that they never to give up offering their ideas and entrepreneurial skills to make things better, in the NHS and beyond.

There is another reason I am inspired by Mary Seacole. Mary had resolve. She stuck with it, despite seemingly insurmountable challenges. Even today, nearly 140 years after her death, and despite incontrovertible evidence about what she did for British soldiers (including contemporaneous British Army records, newspaper reports and first-hand accounts) there are still people who seek to sully her name, to claim that she was not worthy of recognition, not a “real” nurse, and in some way inferior to Florence Nightingale. No-one involved in the statue appeal has ever sought to make Mary Seacole out to be in competition with Florence Nightingale, by the way, but her detractors continue to make unflattering, unkind comparisons.

I wish I had even a fraction of Mary’s resolve. I have not experienced racism. I know a little of antisemitism and gender discrimination.  But I know more about the stigma, particularly the self-stigma, of mental illness. Mental illness, including the paralysing depression that besets me from time to time, messes with your head. Mental illness tells you that you are a bad person, that you are unworthy of anything you have ever achieved or aspire to achieve, that your efforts are pointless, that you are weak, evil, selfish and loathsome. It even tells you that you are undeserving of pity or help. And because of that, it makes you isolated and lonely, when the thing you need most is kindness and encouragement from others, especially family, friends and work colleagues.

Mental illness is covered by disability legislation. But confession time; I have a bit of an issue with that. Because, as with physical illnesses and disabilities, the legislation seeks to highlight people’s problems and asks employers and those providing services to make “reasonable” adjustments. Now that I have found the courage to come clean about my history of mental illness (despite the job I used to do, it took a very long time) I don’t want others to be forced to make adjustments for me. I don’t want them to see the challenges I have faced and continue to face as deficits to be accommodated. I want people to welcome what I have gained from facing up to my occasional plunges into a frightening, horrible place. I want them to understand that I, and others like me, have riches and strengths to share because of what we have faced and learned to live with. Not in spite of these things. I want friends and employers and colleagues to see me and others like me for the assets we bring. And I want politicians and those who run public services to stop defining people who experience mental illness and physical or learning disabilities by their lack of abilities.

Our benefits system is all wrong. It forces people to accentuate their deficits rather than their assets. It defines people by what they can’t do rather than by what they can. It penalises people if their condition or capabilities fluctuate or improve. And it forces people to become passive recipients rather than co-producers, equal partners and experts by experience.

I can’t change that today. But I can perhaps get a few people talking about why we need something different from that catch-all, potentially negative and stigmatising label of “disability” to encompass the enormity of the stigma and discrimination towards people like me.

Mary Seacole was mixed race. It was just one thing about her, and yet people still seek to define her by it. The same is true for me and mental illness. And for everyone else who faces it too.

Thank you for reading to the end and hopefully understanding why I called this blog Serendipity. Thank you to NHS Employers for letting me write it. And thank you all for standing up and fighting the good fight alongside us. 

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